Dan Feldman

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Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: Joakim Noah playing shockingly well

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Repeatedly injured and ineffective when on the floor, Joakim Noah looked washed up last season. For centers on the wrong side of 30 and with heavy mileage, those problems usually only worsen – bad news for the Knicks, who signed him to a four-year, $72  million contract in 2016.

But Noah is eliciting quotes that – even in the preseason, a time for hope and optimism – stand out.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek, via Howie Kussoy of The New York Post:

“Coming off those injuries, literally, I’m shocked of how well he’s played just because I didn’t think he was gonna be ready this early,” Jeff Hornacek said following practice Saturday. “I’m extremely happy with how he’s playing. He’s playing the right way. He sets great screens, he rolls hard, which opens up other things for guys if he doesn’t get it. He’s been finishing with driving layups. He’s been playing great.

“He wants to come back and show everybody what kind of player he is and he’s worked hard to do that over the summer. I give him a lot of credit so far.”

The true test will come when the regular season begins 12 games into the regular season, once Noah has completed serving his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Five teams most likely to get the No. 1 pick

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The NBA’s lottery reform won’t go in effect until 2018-19, meaning there’s still the same old incentives to sink to the bottom of the standings this season. Every team has a greater than 75% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick, as the league’s worst record only cinches a 25% chance, and no team can guarantee the bottom record at this point. But here are the teams “leading” the race for the top pick:

Chicago Bulls

New franchise player Zach LaVine will miss at least the first month of the season, and it’s unclear how athletic he’ll look upon his return from a torn ACL. The roster is littered with other rookie-scale players who haven’t shown the acumen to contribute positively to winning: Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Cameron Payne and even Lauri Markkanen, a rookie who’s admittedly more of an unknown quantity. The only seasoned veteran, Robin Lopez, specializes in the dirty work that won’t matter much on a team where nobody can do the heavy lifting. The Bulls are knowingly rebuilding, and if their goal was completely bottoming out this year, they’re looking good.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Possessing Brooklyn’s unprotected first-rounder from the Kyrie Irving trade, the Cavaliers have a backdoor into the lottery. The Nets were the NBA’s worst team by a four-game margin last season. Then, they traded their best player. Brook Lopez went to the Lakers for D'Angelo Russell, an intriguing prospect, but a player still in need of major fine-tuning. Jeremy Lin should be healthier. Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov are all helpful veterans (though overpaid, which is why they were acquired). The Nets have no incentive to be bad. But they probably can’t help themselves. They were so thin at center, Tyler Zeller was a major upgrade.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are finally rebuilding after a decade-long playoff streak. They lost their two best players from last season, Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, and a couple others who were in the running as third-best, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha. Despite a 43-39 record last year, Atlanta had the point difference – typically a better predictor than record of future success – of a 39-43 team. The bottom might have fallen out, anyway. The Hawks just mostly kicked it out themselves. Atlanta is trying to remain somewhat competitive, but that’s probably a losing battle with this starless/not particularly deep roster.

Sacramento Kings

At least the Kings are young. With eight players on rookie-scale contracts – plus 2014 first-rounder Bogdan Bogdanovic signed to a larger deal this summer – Sacramento has done well in prioritizing team control. Having traded their 2019 first-rounder and not yet possessing an elite prospect, the Kings are particularly incentivized to tank while they still can this year. Newly signed Zach Randolph and Vince Carter are probably too old to get in the way of that. George Hill is far more productive, but he can’t seem to stay healthy.

Phoenix Suns

With Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe, the Suns could be frisky. But Bledsoe has had trouble staying healthy, and Phoenix has proven its eagerness to shift into mid-season tanking. Giving playing to raw young players like Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender would both help their development and improve the team’s draft position.

Kristaps Porzingis says he doesn’t want to play center

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The Knicks just got rid of a franchise player who tormented New York fans with his reluctance to play his optimal position.

Now, the Knicks replace Carmelo Anthony with Kristaps Porzingis… who also doesn’t want to play his optimal position.

Porzingis, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

“I think it’s better for us,” Porzingis said Wednesday. “Me at the 4, especially if I’m playing against a non-shooting 4, I can do a lot. When I’m playing against the 5, I’m fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy. Obviously, offensively I have an advantage at center, but I’m just more comfortable playing at the 4.”

“Fours are usually smaller, and I can shoot over them easier,” Porzingis said. “If it’s a non-shooter at power forward, then I can be under the rim on defense and protecting the rim and that’s what I love.

Like Anthony at power forward vs. small forward, Porzingis – at center vs. power forward – is more effective at a bigger position. That’s true of many players in the modern NBA.

But, in the bigger picture, tussling with bigger players can be wearing. Porzingis has already looked susceptible to minor injuries. It’s probably best he spend some time at less-demanding power forward. With Joakim Noah, Enes Kanter, Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn at center, New York can accommodate Porzingis.

Still, the Knicks also ought to play 7-foot-3 Porzingis at center when they’re trying to maximize their chances of winning. Maybe that comes in a few choice games this year but more often next season. Perhaps, the 22-year-old Porzingis gets stronger and more capable of playing center in future years, too.

Anthony dodged playing down during his physical prime. This isn’t an identical situation… yet.

 

Three coaches on the hot seat this season

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The NBA is in the midst of unprecedented coaching stability.

Logically, it’s only a matter until that gets upended.

But, team by team, it’s hard to find situations ripe for change. Still, here are the coaches on the hottest seats entering the 2017-18 season:

Alvin Gentry (Pelicans)

The list must start here. Gentry is coaching a mismanaged Pelicans team with undue expectations. He’s far closer to getting fired than anyone else in the league.

In fact, it’s surprising Gentry has lasted this long.

Monty Williams got fired immediately after leading New Orleans to its first playoff appearance in four years. Gentry’s two Pelicans teams haven’t come particularly close to reaching the postseason.

Now, the pressure intensifies. DeMarcus Cousins is entering a contract year. The clock is always ticking until Anthony Davis becomes an unrestricted free agent. And, of course, the West is incredibly strong.

Gentry doesn’t have much to work with considering the circumstances. Davis and Cousins are excellent players, but they prevent Gentry from implementing his preferred up-tempo style. Jrue Holiday is a fine third wheel, but roster-construction issues shift him to less-than-optimal shooting guard. Those problems are particularly evident at small forward, where Dante Cunningham (ideally a power forward) and Tony Allen (ideally a shooting guard) will split time with Solomon Hill injured.

Gentry’s boss, general manager Dell Demps, also appears on thin ice. If/when things go poorly will Demps fire Gentry to shift blame? Or will the Pelicans clean house completely?

Gentry faces an uphill climb to make those questions irrelevant.

Jeff Hornacek (Knicks)

A whopping 10 (!) coaches work for front-office heads who didn’t hire them: Jeff Hornacek (Knicks), Mike Budenholzer (Hawks), Brett Brown (76ers), Frank Vogel (Magic), Luke Walton (Lakers), Tyronn Lue (Cavaliers), Jason Kidd (Bucks), Doc Rivers (Clippers), Nate McMillan (Pacers) and Dwane Casey (Raptors).

Take your pick of which has the hottest seat. The internal politics at play can be far from evident.

Brown, Kidd and Walton face higher expectations than last season. Lue faces the highest expectations this side of Golden State. Rivers, McMillan and Casey have downgraded teams that have not given up hope of winning. Hornacek, Budenholzer and Vogel oversee teams that seem OK with losing in the short term, but poor records always hasten dismissals regardless of context.

The nod for hottest seat goes to Hornacek, who’s stuck in James Dolan’s top-down chaotic franchise. Patience never lasts in New York, and there are already rumors about Hornacek’s replacement and poor relationship with franchise player Kristaps Porzingis.

Fred Hoiberg (Bulls)

Again, you could easily pick one of the nine other coaches from the above section (except maybe Kidd, who might hold power over general manager Jon Horst). In the interest of variety, let’s mention Hoiberg.

The Bulls are a quagmire, knowingly entering a rebuilding stage but with the Gar Forman/John Paxson under increased scrutiny. Does Chicago actually have the appetite for sustained losing?

Hoiberg has already appeared in over his head connecting with established veterans. Maybe teaching young players will better suit the former college coach, but the NBA is still a different animal. If Hoiberg stumbles in this task, what reason will there be to keep him around?

Forman not wanting to admit firing Tom Thibodeau for Hoiberg was a mistake? Maybe. The pesky storyline that Hoiberg hasn’t had his type of players? Few NBA coaches are afforded that luxury.

Otherwise, it’s getting late early for Hoiberg, who’s entering his third season.

The Bulls just hired former coach Doug Collins as an advisor. If I were Hornacek, I wouldn’t feel great about that.

Three questions the Indiana Pacers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 42-40, swept in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Larry Bird resigned then the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, a horrible deal that got the summer off on the wrong track. Indiana also swapped Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis for Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph in order to prevent bottoming out. The Pacers picked T.J. Leaf (No. 18), Ike Anigbogu (No. 47) and Edmond Sumner (No. 52) in the draft.

THREE QUESTIONS THE PACERS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Indiana escape its unsatisfying track? The Pacers are headed toward winning 30-something games, missing the playoffs and picking in the bottom of the lottery. It’s a miserable place to be.

Be just a little better, and they could make the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Be just a little worse, and they could land a premier draft pick.

Either direction is preferable to the apparent status quo.

The Pacers clearly don’t want to tank. Hence, their offseason strategy. But if the season goes south quickly, they could embrace losing by trading veterans and/or giving more minutes to young players.

Competing for the playoffs is a little trickier, but Indiana has enough veterans where that could take care of itself. The odds are against it, but this team is capable of sneaking in with the right breaks.

2) Can Victor Oladipo handle the expectations thrust upon him? Oladipo didn’t choose to return to the basketball-crazed state where he starred in college. He didn’t ask to be the Pacers’ main return for Paul George.

But here he is.

Oladipo is a solid player, and at 25, he might still be improving. He’ll have to in order to justify the George trade (and maybe even his four-year, $84 million contract extension that kicks in this season).

No longer playing with Russell Westbrook should help. Oladipo regressed while trying to play a spot-up role next to the Oklahoma City superstar last season. Indiana needs Oladipo to be more aggressive with the ball, a role that better suits him. Whether he’s good enough to handle those responsibilities on a good team is another question entirely, though.

3) Will Myles Turner break out? With George gone, Turner is now the Pacers’ franchise player (ignoring how the team might market Oladipo, who returns after starring with the Hoosiers).

Turner has all the potential to be a modern rim-protecting, 3-point-shooting center. He can get more comfortable beyond the arc. He must fine-tune his defense. But all the future looks bright for the 21-year-old.

He was intriguing as a rookie then even better last year. How steeply Turner continues to ascend will play a major role in whether Indiana exceeds expectations this season – and how its rebuild looks beyond.